What Can Historical Fiction Accomplish That History Does Not?
On Time, the Past, and Einstein's Theory of Relativity
Over drinks recently one afternoon, I turned to my friend, a physicist, and asked him—I had made a dent in my gin and tonic—if he had any thoughts on time. He said he had many, but all that were more adequately discussed in books, and he was happy to pass these books along to me. But he did want to know, why was I, his middle-aged friend, a moderately successful writer of fiction, asking amateur, vague questions after such a dangerous topic. Of course the perceived peril was that I would try to express these complex ideas to a wider audience. And had I explained to him that I was thinking about writing an essay, I’m sure he would have successfully persuaded me into dropping it all together. He is a good friend.
Saint Augustine famously said, “If nobody asks me, I know what time is, but if I am asked, I am at a loss what to say.” Time is slippery. Einstein’s First Theory of Relativity explains, among other things, that if one of a pair of identical twins grew up at high altitude and the other at sea level, that the high-level altitude twin would be older. This is an odd fact, one of those realities that we learn—as educated people—to accept, and that, perhaps, a fiction writer will accept with ease. Because much of what we do as fiction writers is to manipulate and recreate time—to make it seem as if time is passing for characters—we are easily persuaded that the living are also subject to such manipulations.
And why all this thought about time? And this—scientific time—the time that relates to space and speed of light, that underscores the incorrectness of our processing of our existence, as opposed to the comforting metronome of minutes ticking into hours, or the card-shuffling artistic approach where one posits a closer present in order to lens an articulated past? One doesn’t pick up an essay like this in order to learn about the concept of actual time, and if one desired such a thing, you—like I—would choose a physicist over a fiction writer to lay the facts bare, to let you know that even though the physicists own time, that many don’t really believe in it. Or at least not the sequential kind, which explains away the fact that cups shattering into pieces do not find themselves reassembled. That the past is something that happened before, which is why an impression of it still remains.
I am a writer who often traffics in historical material, which is why I find myself circling back to try to get a simple explanation of what it is to be a practitioner of such a form of writing. I did not set out to be a historical fiction writer. In fact, I find myself in an Augustinian quandary in that I know what a historical fiction writer is until I am asked. I do not feel that I easily occupy that place—half-archeologist, half-Doctor Frankenstein—excavating and animating in the name of literature. In my mind, I write books of ideas that don’t shy away from historical subject matter, which may appear to be much the same beast, but in the private wanderings of my mind, is entirely different.
Quite a few years ago I was at a dinner with a famous American writer, and she asked me what I was working on. I could sense that she was not really interested, which would have involved a longer response. She got the shorthand answer, which then—and this was quite a while ago—was a book on Roger Casement. She didn’t know who he was, and so I dutifully explained, humanitarian, Irish revolutionary, all the while aware of her mounting derision. An aside here, I had recently been on a committee that might have given her something and hadn’t. We were both aware of this fact as the conversation proceeded. And degraded. And as anyone who’s tried to write any fiction knows, there’s not really a good reason to do it. There isn’t.
We do it because we’re doing it and it interests us. You can’t explain what is happening with a book in progress, unless—ironically—the book in question happens to be bad, in which case it will reduce easily to explainable elements. Regardless, my attempt to explain the merits of my book project fell short—which was the desired result—and this woman asked why I would bother with such a project. If my research, as I’d indicated, had brought me to so many extant texts, why add another, that, in addition to being late in the game, was also fiction? This is a good question coming from most people. Coming from another writer, it was insensitive, and broke a sort of unspoken rule that writers observe when discussing unfinished work. But we all had to run to a reading that this woman was delivering, so I was delivered. Although her question stayed with me, and in a generative way, for which I am indebted to her. Why add to the historical register with something made up? What does historical fiction accomplish that history does not?
If you look up the definition of historical fiction, you might learn that, “Historical fiction is defined as movies and novels in which a story is made up but is set in the past and sometimes borrows true characteristics of the time period in which it is set.” This is not a particularly illuminating definition and, as definitions like this are usually rolled out in order to be undermined, this probably does not surprise. Any definition with the word “sometimes” becomes useless. This definition could also state that historical fiction “sometimes contains pirates,” because that would also be true—even true of something I’ve written. But for our own purposes, we need a better definition. Even the assertion that the story is “set in the past” is problematic, because we have yet to define what the past is, a potentially futile task given the possibility that the past—a past—may not even exist.
Our understanding of time is largely Newtonian. Time flows in one direction, as limitless as space, and somewhere a grand clock records its passing. Or a less grand clock—our aging bodies, the stuff and memory we accumulate over the course of our lives. But great scientific minds do not provide validation for this. Life might not course. Great thinkers, Einstein included, find no proof for the one-thing-after-another nature of time. It was Einstein who pointed out that simultaneity was impossible to prove and, therefore, disprove. What we are left with is the possibility that time is composed of a series of complete instances, time capsules, flowing—or not flowing— in an indeterminate direction. Our experience of time passing is simply that—an experience, an opinion—one that falls apart when analyzed in a scientific way. We simply think something happened before, but, when tested under the metaphorical microscope, such understanding falls apart.
Where does one plot the past given such a reality? How can history, and therefore things historical, exist without a past?
The anomaly is one that we must live with—this disagreement between the time we know and that which might be real—in the same way that widely accepted relativity does not agree with quantum mechanics, and, in a similar vein, as we acknowledge our spinning planet and the sliding grooves of gravity, we still manage to walk our dog along an undeniably flat path moving through the substance of space that apparently is composed of nothing.
But experience has a value. However willing we are to accept that the tabletop is made of particles and that these are moving, you do rest your cup of coffee on it, and the vast majority of understanding life springs out of the cup on the table and not the composition of wood. At some point we have to accept what understanding we have and start building on it. Of course. After all, even Saint Augustine knew what the past was. In order to proceed, we need a definition that holds, at least within our understanding, of what the past is. So let us agree, for now, that the past is that which is recognized by the present. The present sees the past, but the past does not see the present, because a past that saw a present would actually be a present seeing a future, which is—as far as definitions go—impossible.
And historical fiction? Perhaps historical fiction distinguishes itself by occupying a culture rendered alien to the reader through passage of time.
The present recognizes the past but is, at some point, alienated by it.
Honestly, how can we write anything but historical novels? The present keeps moving and in some way, despite my assertion that the past is rendered alien, it is this now—who we are just becoming—that is the least understood and therefore the most alien. There are many books that attempt to tell us who we are and do so with differing degrees of efficacy. Big novels. And I could provide some examples, but it’s hard to even read these books without feeling a willful historical yearning—that somewhere down the road, people will think, that’s what they were like! Something like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City was certainly intended to explode a current scene and now is a historical account, but not historical fiction, because it was written amid the juddering music and towering hair and spilling cocaine of the 1980s. The time of its writing makes it not historical fiction. But it is hardly contemporary. Although positioning in time of the writer as a standard for deciding genre seems somewhat arbitrary.
The past—whatever it is—is good. The present is strange, and to be honest, there isn’t much of it.
And what of history? I could debunk another definition, but instead I’ll use mine: History groups the matter of event to a subject that lends itself to causal sequencing. Marie Antoinette with her cake. Robespierre with his guillotine. That’s history. But in our mental processing, these events rearrange, misalign, and occupy the same space. Our minds prefer an amalgamated mess that flashes whole, a dramatic canvas that presents the outcome, the cause, and the color all at once. To illustrate this, one can consider a dramatic canvas, for example, Goya’s Third of May 1808, where the focal figure has just thrown up his hands, the soldiers are leaning into the next moment as their fingers tense around soon-to-be-pulled triggers, and a man in the foreground pours his blood into the packed earth. That a painting captures a moment must, for logic’s sake, be accepted, but the viewer supplies the action—the temporal, the necessary sequencing for the matter of the work to resonate. And this sense of completeness in viewing a painting is used by our friends the physicists to debunk the notion of sequential time—we perceive a past in our lives in much the same way that we perceive a past in Goya’s painting: someone did some variety of disservice to cause the supine figure in the foreground to bleed out. That is painting. But writing, writing is progressive—writing, with its word tripping upon word, page upon page, volume upon volume—writing, and therefore reading, is loyal to our perception of linear time. The fact that the word “flashback” exists validates the primacy of the sequential. And there are little experiments that play with multiplicity and variety in the ordering and outcome of narrative, and those are fun, but of no more consequence to this argument than wearing one’s underwear upon one’s head.
Having never painted, I cannot know the difficulties that arise in the creating of specific one-plane drama, but I do sense an ease in the communication of such art. Reading requires a different commitment—more time, less immediate response. And the writing of it, as any writer knows, demands an unnatural attention to detail in order to create something that might mimic life: writing often succeeds through its ability to vanish completely, aspiring to annihilation in the service of vivifying some ordinary thing.
Writing is the form that best mimics our experience of life—life which is basically our own personal space, something that we know has matter but cannot see, something that has gravitational pull that creates grooves upon which we are drawn. Our loyalty to sequential time lines up with the artificial word-after-word of narrative and its use of streaming language to approximate or translate the multi-sensory, instantaneous, cumulative experience of consciousness. It is this analogous relationship between writing and our experience of time that makes it vital to the fictional exploration of historical subject matter.
Now we return to my famous American writer, whose words are as immediate now as they were those long years ago. Why add a fiction book to the library of extant material? After all, are not historical accounts books? Do they not string out the matter of their subjects in a way that mimics the tripping minutes of time?
There are two responses to this question. The first has to deal with perceptions of truth. Any sharp 12-year-old can tell you that historical accounts can never be wholly accurate. Some person wrote it and some person somewhere no doubt disagrees with the account. But historians want to tell the truth. Truth is their quarry, calling as the North Pole once did to a number of Victorian explorers, people like Franklin, who were willing to sacrifice themselves in its glorious pursuit. Not all attempts are successful, but we must believe that they are all sincere.
Such a variety of sincerity is lost upon the fiction writer.
At a recent talk in which I explored some of these ideas, I discussed the Casement novel. In the Question and Answer period, a man, after identifying himself as a historian, politely remarked that some of my presentation of the events leading to the Easter Uprising might not be accurate. This talk, worth noting, was at the University of Oxford. And although I usually consider myself a champion of the historian, in this particular instance, we were undeniably at odds with one another. The historian was prepared to match fact to fact, but was instead met with the reality that although his version might well be true, this was of no interest to me, as my character did not believe it. Casement would have had his own complex beliefs and my job—admittedly strange—is to provide a believable model of those beliefs, whatever their nature. What ought to have been believed is irrelevant.
Writers of fiction look for the bits that distort, and color, and qualify—that raise all sorts of questions where there were once answers. And all the other reasons to write historical fiction gather neatly here, where we tread into the more obvious: that historical fiction—like a spider at its web—thrives in the blank spaces between known and known, supplying plausible filler; that historical fiction tells stories through created personal perspectives; that historical fiction gives voice to previously underrepresented populations. These are powerful, worthy, interesting reasons to write novels and short stories inspired by historical subject matter, but perhaps not particularly curious.
So my first response as to why historical fiction is necessary is that material truth does not matter to the writer. We write about the tabletop and the coffee cup that sits there, of time marching forward, of the validation of belief. We are not governed by what can be proven to be true, but rather the experience of it.
The other compelling reason to write historical fiction is its ability to perform. Fiction takes historical figures—significant or not—and turns them into actors. Casement was a grand humanitarian, so—as he performs in his fictional narrative—he must accomplish some grand humanitarian acts. Casement was a man who had sex with other men, so he must go and find some company. Casement was an Irish revolutionary, so he must have problems with the English and then he must act on them. And the important words in that sentence are “and then” because this refers back to the definition of history. Marie Antoinette and her cake. Robespierre and his guillotine. Casement’s disillusionment with England. His siding with the Germans in WWI. The character focus—the interest in psychology—of historical fiction introduces a personal causality, and, important to note, a causality that is not lensed through outcome.
Fiction operates as if there is no determined outcome. Is there an art form that so dodges the anvil of fate?
There are lively histories. Historians animate characters, are interested in the sequence of things—the domino effect—and a good historian does not eschew the personality of her major players in the process of bringing understanding to the larger movements of world event. A good example is Barbara Tuchman’s compelling The Guns of August, meticulous in its assembly of personalities, loyal to a sequence of causal action, but I would be very surprised if any readers of The Guns of August were unaware that the events outlined in this book led to the epic slog that was the First World War. And I would also be surprised if an interest in the First World War hadn’t led the reader to Tuchman’s book in the first place. The process of reading a book like this is taking one’s facile knowledge of a historical moment and developing a more sophisticated understanding, but the book’s conclusion—the body counts, the economic nightmare, the shifting boundaries—is always present in one’s mind, approaching with certainty, its shadow increasing above and around as one nears the end of the account. One reads not to, but rather through the inevitability of this conclusion.
It is tempting to ascribe the power of historical fiction to its ability to distort reality: the possibility that the writer might improvise exists. Consider Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer. But this is not actually the true power wielded by the fictional account. The power of the fictional account stems from the invented world that spreads beyond the narrow stream of words that we read upon the page, from its desire to force the characters to act on a set that is loyal to sequential time. On every page of the historical novel, a clock is ticking, even if we do not hear it. And if the characters cannot perform it, than fiction cannot represent it. Fiction’s true power lies in its ability to recreate the sensation of the past through its adherence to experienced time. Fiction introduces consciousness into the matter, the consciousness of its narrators, a consciousness that accepts all that cannot be proven along with all that is known. And this consciousness introduces the present into the text, a present that moves, like a bead, over the characters’ lives much as the present, whether or not one believes in time at all, is suspended over the eternal now.
In fiction, the time is always moving in one direction. Flashing backward and forward acknowledges rather than disproves this. Characters are aging, they are assembling memories, they are aware that the present is that which recognizes the past. This is what fiction does. That fiction brings the past to life is true, but it also allows things to die.The clock is ticking on and on into a deepening evening and should a cup fall to the floor and shatter, it will stay in pieces until it is swept up and thrown away.
Fiction presumes that there is no other record than the one created minute to minute on the page. There is no greater authority. As we read, we are in a present that recognizes a past, but more importantly, we are in a present that accepts an unknown future. Certain markers and events may loom out at us, because our present makes us aware of all the significant things that have gone before, but we read in thrall to the limited experience of those who inhabit the text.
All art manipulates and distorts in order to create a resonance of truth, and in its reach, hits both the intended mark and its opposite, artifice, because the sincerity of the fiction writer is different than the sincerity of the historian. It is the difference between seeing a dead fox on the side of the highway and being inspired to fear rather than sorrow. The fiction writer organizes material and understanding out of a deranged sense of empathy, and can anticipate the impact without ever reaching it.
Historical fiction allows us to read about things that we know, but it also allows us to not know these same things. In this way, historical fiction most closely represents how the stuff of history happens. We write and read as we live, filled with possibility, and although we may progress to recognizable events, we—like the characters—do not know who we will be when we get there.